It’s 1975, a week before Grand Final day in Sydney, my father tries to convert me. He is an avid Roosters supporter: they’ve overcome Manly and are playing St George in the Grand Final. One of my earliest football memories. He buys me a Rooster’s jersey.
Dad, Mum, two of my brothers are Rooster’s supporters, my youngest brother will emerge as a Parramatta supporter in the coming few years, he’s 4 in 1975. Dad’s brothers are Rooster’s supporters.
History now shows the Roosters blitzed St George, 38 to nil.
Dad was born in Loxton SA, a long way from Sydney, the heart of rugby league. He lived at Bondi when his family relocated to Sydney and quickly fell in love with rugby league and the Roosters. Some 20 years or so later he meets mum, a local Bondi girl and an avid Rooster supporter. His second love affair begins. A few weeks later they are married. Some 55 years later mum dies (2017). They watch every Roosters game together, enjoy the joy of four premiership victories and another six grand finals appearances as they raise four football loving boys.
When they got married, dad was into hotels and around the time us boys started coming along, dad was the Publican at the Star Hotel on Botany Road Alexandria. The Star was a bustling inner-city pub where crowds would spill out onto the pavement on busy Botany Road. It was a great life growing up in this environment. Today not so kosher, but back in the 1970s it was the life. We’d run around the pub in between the drinking, gambling and smoking and no one would bat an eyelid. We got to know the locals and regulars and pub life was exciting for me and my brothers.
The pub would come alive on Saturdays as the horse racing roared from a number of radios and rugby league games and scores were regularly updated throughout the afternoon. The crowd would cheer as races were won or tries were scored. Up behind the bar dad had two emblems of two clubs. He was in the heart of Rabbitoh territory so a large red and green rabbit adorned one side of the bar. This kept favour with the largely red and green crowd. Adjacent to it was his beloved Roosters. The emblems would be the cause of many a feud on a Saturday afternoon, with disagreements sometimes spilling out onto the pavement. The disagreements would always end with a round of beers and cheers as the radio continued to blare in the background.
The 1967 Grand Final was the first televised, I was two, so have no memory of Bob McCarthy’s intercept try to win the game by two points (although the ghost of that intercept could be felt around Lang Park on Sunday night 3 October 2021 as victory was snatched from the Rabbitohs by two points). However, on that Saturday back in 1967 the pub was a heaving mass of Rabbitoh supporters. The beers flowed as the game inched forward in a tough defensive battle. Then from nowhere McCarthy intercepts a pass and runs 90 meres to seal the game for the Rabbitohs. The locals celebrated late into the afternoon and evening.
Unlike today though, the following week, the players were at the pub drinking, interacting with locals and talking about that intercept. It was scenes like this that etched rugby league into the community’s collective psyche. Bringing people together, triggering memories, feelings, forging bonds and uplifting everyone’s spirits.
Its more than a game.
The late 1960’s and early 1970’s was a great time in the pub as I grew up. My interactions then were indelibly imprinted on me for a lifetime: my blood was injected with green at the time meaning I was a Rabbitoh for life. Sattler, O’Neill, McCarthy, Coote, Simms, among others regularly called the Star Hotel home. I would weave amongst the crowd, enjoying the company and chatting to the players, not knowing that at the time each interaction infused me with that Rabbitoh spirit. John Sattler constructed a wooden toy for me to play with. It had dials and switches on it, levers and buttons. Just what a severely vision impaired kid needed. Some tactile stimulation to aid in his development.
You see, I was born almost totally blind. The Souths boys loved having me around and I loved interacting with them as dad pulled beers and watched the red, white and blue drain from his second son and be replaced with the red and green spirit. The Rabbitoh spirit is forged from hard work, courage and getting through the tough times so that the good times feel so much better.
Some people say footy is just a game. But as a family we grew up around it. I’d spend hours at Redfern Oval kicking a footy around, watching the team train. It helped me grow up in a sighted world. I could look up to these people, listen, learn and develop skills. At home I had dad, the hardest of hard workers and my brothers who never gave me an inch. Outside home I worshipped this group of men running around in red and green striped tops. Sometimes wining, mostly losing and me learning that life isn’t always easy. You have to work damn hard for the rewards. Dad instilled in me the need for hard work, the Rabbitohs forged the courage and hardness to succeed in what was and could be a tough world.
By 1975 I think my dad finally gave up. We sat down and watched the Roosters maul the Dragons that day. Souths only won six games that year and were wooden spooners. I remember losing to Manly 54-0 and being devastated to the point of ripping streamers down in my bedroom. Dad saw how upset I was, how devastated I was. He knew my blood was red and green and not red, white and blue. Dad consoled me and spoke about loyalty, conviction and dedication: all of which steeled me for the dark days ahead. The heyday of the 1960s were over and I had missed it. At the time I didn’t know how dark the Rabbitohs journey was going to become.
As four boys, we had a perfect number for some epic two aside games. My other three brothers see perfectly well, and I never asked for an inch, so we played hard, fair and I gave as good as I got. We‘d recreate grand finals, pick our players and emulate our heroes of the time. For me it was Terry Fahey. Dad would sometimes join in, or referee, although mum usually did that from a kitchen window not too far from the game.
Sometimes our games would grow as we ventured to the local football oval. We’d play with kids we knew, some we didn’t and anyone else who wanted to join in. We forged great and positive friends, some for life. As a group we’d protect each other, support each other and our parents knew their kids were off having fun somewhere and not getting into trouble. That was the 1970s.
Its more than a game.
As I grew older, I’d go to games at Redfern oval. I’d trek to Brookvale oval, North Sydney, Kogarah, Leichardt. I’d follow the team around. I’d often travel with another mate, Philip. We played cricket together in the summer and followed the Rabbitohs around in winter. I learned to travel, be independent, ask for directions, meet new people. A game day expedition was so much more than a game of footy.
When I didn’t go I’d listen intently to the radio for the scores, Souths were rarely the match of the round. But I’d lie on my bed and listen intently every week, hoping for a win.
Through the 1970s, after that grand final win in 1971 we made the semi-finals twice. The 1980s was a little better, with five finals appearances, including 1989 where we were minor premiers. I went to both semi-finals and watched us get quickly despatched. I was crestfallen.
During the 1990’s our best finish was 9th. I was 25 at the start of the 1990s and 35 at the end. It was hard. It was demoralising. But that Rabbitohs spirit instilled in me 20 years earlier lived on and I never wavered. It got even harder when we were kicked out of the competition for two years. I didn’t watch a gamer of footy during that time.
I felt empty and lost for a while. My guiding light had been taken away and I was rudderless.
I donated to our cause and was elated when we were reinstated.
Never say die.
Its more than a game.
By the time the Rabbitohs were back in the competition I had moved to Canberra. I didn’t go to many games live, but followed on TV. Whenever I was in Sydney visiting dad, mum and my brothers we’d always coincide with a Roosters v Rabbitohs battle.
The 2000’s were another tough decade. They were for me too as I forged a new partnership and marriage, got myself back into a comfortable financial position and forged a new career in the private and not for profit sector. It was a tough couple of years. Us Rabbitohs are built tough. We know that mostly you have to work twice as hard as the next person to achieve half as much. But nevertheless, you still put in the work.
During my life Souths have been down more than up. It is only in recent years, after decades of hard work that our club is reaping the benefits of so much hard work by so many people. Souths is a way of life.
Its more than a game.
However since 2012 we’ve done well and our first serious attempt that year we fell short and needed to re-learn how to win big games.
In 2013 I was faced with a personal crisis as we got closer to grand final glory in my lifetime than ever before. In 2013 the belief was there more so than in 2012. I faced a personal and career crisis in 2013 as the Rabbitohs journey echoed my own life. I went to Melbourne on 22 September 2013, full of hope for a Grand Final berth, but my hopes were dashed as we fell short to the ultimate premiers. A few weeks later, my career hopes were dashed for a while as negative and evil forces rose up against me.
The 2014 season started with new hope. I had a new career, I’d overcome my career crisis. I’d suffered a massive eye injury whilst in New York and slowly my eyesight was allowing me to be me again. I started and completed an MBA and was still a dyed in the wool Rabbitoh.
And finally, glory came, and I was there to witness it. Week one of the finals we defeated Manly and earned a week off. Week three it was the Roosters. Dad, mum, my brothers, and I drew battle lines. Could we overcome our original foe, could this be our year. We all attended the game and my family was crowing after 20 minutes. We were 12 – nil down. Some great back line moves saw us even the score line by halftime. We weren’t to be outdone this year and as the game reached its crescendo we were ten points clear and off to a grand final. We’d won, 32 – 22.
History now shows more than 82,000 fans, many of whom had never seen the Rabbitohs win a grand final in their lifetime, celebrated a hard fought victory. With 15 minutes to go no one knew who would prevail. In the end three late tries sealed a comprehensive victory, the 21st for this club. Some 43 years in the making. A first for me.
Many say that when Souths are doing well, Rugby League is doing well. The Rabbitohs are the litmus test of this great sport. And on that night in 2014 we were all doing well. The train ride home was just epic. Singing our theme song, meeting and talking to people you’d normally never interact with. The sense of togetherness, community, all facing in the same direction. Society could learn a lot.
Since that time we have had a great run, a series of finals appearances, we have fallen short of a Grand Final on three occasions, but in 2021 reached the summit and a formidable foe in the Panthers. We fell short. Someone had finally got even with Bob McCarthy and time for glory would have to wait another year, or another. We will wait, we’ve waited before, we are tough, we are forged from something different and we will prevail, whatever the result.
I know I wouldn’t be who I am today without the red and green pulsating in my veins.
Its more than a game.
Rugby league provides our cultural adrenalin. It’s a physical manifestation of our rules of life, comradeship, honest endeavour, and a staunch, often ponderous allegiance to fair play.Russell Crowe, part owner South Sydney Rabbitohs.